Openness crucial to nuclear safety
China has no alternative but to develop nuclear power to pick up more of the energy load to drive rapid economic growth. But in addition to coping with the risks of nuclear energy, there is the matter of perception. Nuclear energy must be seen to be safe if the public is to have confidence in the country's nuclear power programme.
That is why Beijing imposed a ban on the approval of new reactors pending a safety audit after last year's Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami. This has taken a year - longer than many expected - and turned up some potential problems. But two subsequent events confirm that the disaster has not diminished Beijing's faith in nuclear power. After reviewing the report, the State Council has approved 'in principal' a five-year safety plan, prompting speculation that the ban would soon be lifted. And, within days, China National Nuclear Power Company, the country's biggest nuclear power developer, announced it had won approval to raise money to fund five projects worth more than 173 billion yuan.
That is all well and good - so long as reactors are properly managed and regulated. They remain a prime source of clean, plentiful and reliable electricity. China needs them if it is to cap its reliance on environmentally harmful fossil fuels and an ecologically damaging rush of hydro-electric dam construction.
The State Council said risks were 'under control', but revealed that issues uncovered by the inspection included a failure by some nuclear plants to meet new requirements for flood control, and that some were not fully prepared to handle a major tsunami. 'Some civil reactors and fuel-cycle facilities did not meet new earthquake standards,' it also said. All the problems were being rectified, the council said, but the statement fell short of providing further details. Even if the problems posed remote risks amplified by the unlikely chain of events that led to the Fukushima meltdown, the lack of detail is disappointing, given public concerns.
Full transparency is critical to public confidence in nuclear power. That principle resonates loudly in Hong Kong, just 50 kilometres from the Daya Bay nuclear power station, which supplies some of our electricity. Lu Changshen, general manager of Daya Bay, has been more forthcoming in disclosing that an extra diesel-generated emergency power backup is being added to each of the two reactor units to help pump water should they need cooling, and that an extra water tank is being considered. This reflects a direct lesson from Fukushima, where one problem was a lack of power to pump cooling water. For the sake of public confidence, our government should press for more openness and regular updates on the safety regime.